Technology Trends the Industry Should Adopt Now
By Craig Schweikart, Constellation Homebuilder Systems
The role of technology in builder operations, marketing and sales will become increasingly more important this decade as builders emerge from the downturn and adapt to new marketplace demands from customers, suppliers and trade partners for more robust Web sites; streamlined and more efficient communications, sales processes and business relationships; and social networking.
While builders historically have been slow to adopt and use new technologies, they can no longer afford to conduct business the way they have in the past. The marketplace is changing, and it will demand that builders keep pace.
To begin, builders must recognize that these market demands are very real. Builders who respond best will have a competitive advantage as their market recovers.
Builders also should realize that software providers and partners are helping the industry keep pace by lowering builders’ initial cost of adoption, making the specific technologies easier to adopt and applying proven technology that can result in greater success responding to the marketplace.
Fundamentally, builders responding to the changing marketplace should focus on two broad technology areas — Web sites and business software (accounting, operations and accessible information.)
Builders have looked to improve their technology in these areas in the past, but today the solutions are better defined and much more industry-focused.
The Web Site — Cornerstone of Sales, Marketing, Communications, Operations
Builders who, in the coming decade, want to effectively respond to the technology changes in the marketplace will make their Web sites the cornerstone of their technology plans and incorporate more nimble business software that will drive information — and customers and vendors — to and from their Web sites.
Currently, buyers include builders’ Web sites as part of their decision-making process in 70% of all new-home sales. Consequently, one sales consultant suggests that sales teams should actually regard first-time visitors to model homes and communities as return visitors because they initially visited the builder’s Web site.
Builders who create their own Web sites should partner with a Web developer who understands their business and can leverage their expertise. They also should choose Web developers who have experience in working with builders and with related industries, such as the real estate and broker marketplace. The Web developer should also have extensive knowledge with proven success in Web site optimization.
Builders need to recognize that many Realtor® and broker Web sites are further ahead of most new home sales sites regarding attracting and nurturing prospective buyers, so spend time looking at broker and agent Web sites when designing a site.
Create a Web Presence
In the next decade, builder Web sites will evolve from the traditional sites that showcase homes and communities to become electronic communication engines that involve and engage prospective buyers with stimulating content; pass leads to an automatic follow-up system; and provide communication portals to partners, trades and buyers.
Builders will be using their Web site with its robust features to sell homes and streamline their business. Their site will function as a marketing tool with focused and effective search engine optimization (SEO) so the site is easy to find; and it must be able to attract Web visitors and cultivate them into bona fide leads. Ultimately, builders will want their site to become the single source of information to all their stakeholders.
This will involve offering real-time information to prospects, buyers and home owners and having their site be driven by industry-knowledgeable professionals. And just as importantly, the site will have to be nimble enough to adapt to a changing marketplace.
Your prospects and buyers will at least expect, though more likely demand, these changes. If they don’t see them, they’ll go elsewhere. This will be particularly true of the next generation of home buyers, according to Chuck Shinn, of Shinn Consulting.
“Coming out of this cycle, the baby boomers are moving into the downsizing stage of their lives. However, they will not return to the market in any significant number until the housing prices at least stabilize,” Shinn said on the Builder Partnerships Web site. “The next population group, Generation X, is now in the prime home buying age of 28 to 44 years old.” They will lead the industry into “a complete generational change as the millennial generation enters the housing market and becomes the new driving force for housing,” he said.
Keep Technology Costs Down
Unfortunately, far too many builders build and launch their Web site based on simple economics. They build their site to match their budget, instead of budgeting to match their needs.
Much of the cost for an advanced Web presence is a matter of shifting costs from traditional budgets toward a new, electronic outreach. Billboards have become Web pages; mailers are now e-mails; and brochures and flyers have been replaced by interactive plans on the Web site. Even home owner manuals are now available online. It’s just a matter of shifting marketing and advertising dollars.
Builders can lower their implementation costs by considering packaged or template Web sites with comprehensive content management tools. These products and solutions can minimize the time and cost involved and should be evaluated alongside developing a custom site.
Look for solutions that provide an easy ability to administer and customize your Web site to meet your specific requirements. By doing the work yourself, you can save both time and money.
Seek a solution with the content management capability — a simple-to-understand and easy-to-use module that takes the fear out of managing the Web site content. Simple tasks like browsing images to upload them or copying and pasting text to update the pages are simplified with good content management capabilities.
Focus Communication on Real-Time Information
Focus your Web site communication on sharing real-time information. A site with Web presence will generate interest from prospects and shoppers through search engine optimization and be able to capture and manage the resulting traffic and electronic leads using the real-time information post to and from the Web site.
A robust site will enable builders to communicate with their business partners through dedicated portals — software tools that post and pull real-time information. Much of the information already exists if builders are already using strong builder-specific software systems in their business operations, so it’s simply a matter of making the information available to specific business partners, including Realtors®, lenders, trades and suppliers.
Once builders understand the scope of the information they wish to communicate electronically, it’s simply a matter of selecting and using the appropriate software package.
Field operations will be able to capture and transmit information such as job progress, photographic data, variances and production updates on mobile platforms like smart-phones and easily communicated with all interested parties, including buyers checking on the status of their homes, for instance. The role of the field staff as the eyes and ears of the builder will be enhanced by using these mobile tools.
With this scenario, construction managers also will have access to the same set of information through their mobile applications and portals. They, too, will use their mobile platforms to update critical information contained in the back office and in the accounting software.
Purchase orders, schedules and variances will be captured and documented and the valuable real-time information will be made available to everyone. This also should virtually eliminate costly mistakes caused by not having one set of data, or conflicting data.
While real-time information is the most valuable, it is often the most difficult to integrate into a builder’s Web presence. So, it is very important for builders to work with software providers who are willing and able to work with their Web developer to facilitate sharing the information.
Enhance the Buyer’s Interactive Experience
Builders will have to enhance the prospects’ and buyers’ interactive experience on their Web sites. In many cases, the experience will generate a lead and follow-up software will control and manage that prospect from cultivation all the way to close.
A well-designed and well-implemented Web site should have a defined process that immerses the buyer in a memorable sales experience by managing expectations and actions. Functionality such as houses that text or talk could become commonplace on these types of Web sites.
Automatic follow-up plans that communicate directly with the prospect will also become commonplace in these more robust Web sites. If prescribed follow-up goals and achievements aren’t being met, the site’s systems and reporting will communicate the deficiencies to the appropriate staff.
The Facebook Factor
Social networks such as Facebook are having a profound impact on the way business is being conducted.
Builders must learn about building their own community using social networking tools and how to leverage friends and fans and use networking sites to broadcast their message to their audience.
The Facebook generation expects to see everything online, including updates in real time. Those builders who master this early can expect significant results.
Seven Steps to Follow
Technology is more important today than at any other time in recent history. To gear up to meet the challenge, here are seven simple steps that can propel you out of the downturn and into the future:
- Build your technology strategy.
- Standardize processes around an enterprise resource planning solution.
- Prioritize your communication needs.
- Evaluate your return on investment (ROI).
- Invest for your best return.
- Start now.
- Don’t settle for a DIY project.
Craig Schweikart is a vice president at Constellation Homebuilder Systems, where he focuses on providing solutions designed for small builders. He regularly discusses building and technology with builder groups and local associations across the country. For more information, e-mail Schweikart, call 206-450-9983 or visit the Constellation Homebuilder Systems Web site at www.constellationhb.com.
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